One of the many things to come out of Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) last week was an almost offhand discussion of something called Bitcode. It’s an intermediate software format, neither source code nor binary code. And its existence suggests that Apple is getting ready to change its microprocessor architecture. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Bitcode is not the first or only time that software companies have used intermediate formats to make apps hardware-independant. It’s not even the first time Apple has done it. But it does suggest that the Cupertino firm is about to make a change to its CPU architecture, its operating systems, or both. Rumors have floated for years that Apple might switch its Macs from x86 chips to ARM chips, and Bitcode would certainly ease that transition. It could also allow Apple to harmonize the operating systems on Mac and iDevices by allowing both to run the same apps (or at least, to use similar APIs). Apple is one of only a handful of companies to hold an “architectural license” to the ARM microprocessor architecture, meaning it can design its own ARM chps from scratch, not just incorporate ARM’s existing CPU cores. That could allow Apple to create special ARM-based chips with special accelerators, coprocessorss, or other unique features.
Because nearly all Apple software is distributed through the App Store, and not via CD-ROM, third-party downloads, or “side loading,” Apple is in a unique position to modify those apps before they’re installed. An app purchased for an iPad could be modified to suit its characteristics versus, say, a Mac or a Watch. If future iPads use a different processor than current models, the app could be tweaked again, all at the time of purchase. Let the rumor mill grind on.